“Dugongs aren’t naturally curious like dolphins,” explains Chris Todd, skipper of the twin-hulled catamaran Aristocat 2. “They won’t come to us; we have to go and find them. And out here that’s a bit like locating a cow in a very, very large paddock.”
The ‘large paddock’ is Shark Bay, 9,000sq miles of opalescent water in a trident of land poking from the coast of Western Australia — a paddock so big that it’s clearly visible from space.
“Dugongs are also shy and fast. They can take off at 25mph and travel up to 125 miles a day.”
“So, we’re chasing a very fast cow in a very large paddock,” says one of the passengers on the Marine Life Tour.
“Pretty much,” grins Chris. “But keep the faith, brothers and sisters! There are 12 types of seagrass in these waters, of which the dugong eats only five. And it helps if you happen to know where those five types grow…”
In the first hour of cruising, we see rays, turtles and dolphins. Then the deckhand spots a dark shadow in the distance. “Eleven o’clock!” she shouts.
Chris eases off on the throttle until it’s a murmur. “They like the engine noise,” he says. “If they hear the boat, they know where it is and that puts them at ease.”
We get within about 100ft of the grazing dugong before it — still only a shimmering shadow — starts swimming towards the bow of our boat. “Gee, this one’s pretty relaxed,” says Chris.
So relaxed that she comes within six feet of the bow before emerging to snatch a lungful of air. At nearly half a ton, she’s similar in size to a cow. After eyeballing us, she executes a graceful mermaid-like dive and, with a wave of her broad tail, is back to grazing.
The skipper is as entranced as the rest of us. “Dugongs have that fluked tail and yet they’re most closely related to the hippo and the elephant. Hard to believe isn’t it?”
Swimming in Humpback Highway
Much like the dugong, Western Australia’s Coral Coast can be hard to believe. An impossibly rich coastline fringing a seemingly desolate landmass, it’s characterised by those confounding proportions you find only in Australia. Over the course of my nine-day Coral Coast odyssey, I’ll clock up 1,250 miles and encounter, at best, a dozen settlements before arriving in Perth.
The journey begins in Exmouth, a town marooned on a cape of ancient land not far above the Tropic of Capricorn. When I pull back my curtains at Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort, the dawn reveals an unlikely pastiche: an emu studiously examining the swimming shorts I’ve left drying on the deck; a long white beach with still waters; and, in the distance, a coronet of 13 radio masts — one of which is taller than the Empire State Building.
Exmouth was built a little over 50 years ago, specifically to support the giant Very Low Frequency (VLF) towers that were erected by the United States to send Cold War directives to their submarines in the Indian Ocean. Alongside the towers was a small American naval base, where personnel drove on the right, played baseball and spent US dollars. The baseball diamond is overgrown now and the Americans have gone, but their towers still rumble out the Pentagon’s VLF messages.
Today, however, Exmouth’s focus is much closer to shore. Each year, around 120,000 visitors use the town as their base to explore Ningaloo Reef, the world’s largest fringing reef and a marine sanctuary, which stretches for 160 miles. The reef is home to abundant coral varieties and over 500 species of fish.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, you can step into Ningaloo straight from the beach — a claim I test at Turquoise Bay. Sure enough, wading into the agreeable 24C waters, I soon find myself snorkelling over coral outcrops with their small constellations of aquatic colour, light and movement. I see large green turtles scudding nonchalantly past, and rays the size of rugs shivering themselves into the sand.
From March to July, the waters outside the reef are visited by the planet’s largest fish, the mysterious and rather passive whale shark. This is when Exmouth’s licensed boat operators spring into action, using spotter planes to locate the giants so people can swim alongside them on day trips.
Some 30,000 humpback whales also cruise along the Coral Coast from July to November, forming a thoroughfare so busy it’s earned the sobriquet ‘humpback highway’. In 2016, the Government of Western Australia permitted boat operators to trial swimming with humpbacks, and I was lucky enough to be part of it. Like many, I expected swimming with the gentle giants to be a moment of zen; in fact, treading water while five adult humpbacks ploughed towards me like dreadnoughts was nothing short of electrifying. The government has given Exmouth the green light for whale-swim tours for 2018.
Serving as a backdrop to the vibrancy of Ningaloo are the Cape Ranges — a long spine of low, time-worn mountains that appear acid-washed in the heat of the day but glow a rich umber when the sun sinks into the Indian Ocean.
The ranges are riven by gorges; ostensibly dry but carved out over millennia by furious flash floods. All of them harbour secrets. In Shothole Canyon, scientists have found caves containing unique species of animals whose nearest relatives are found in the Caribbean — a testament to a time when the great continents were joined. In Yardie Creek, black-footed rock wallabies peer from shadowy crevices in the ochre walls. And in Mandu Mandu Gorge, back in 1989, archaeologists found 22 shells that had been drilled to make a necklace. The shells were carbon dated to 32,000BC, making this very special necklace one of the world’s oldest-known pieces of jewellery.
After two days, I begin my push south. Carnarvon is another town with an out-there resumé. It was established in 1883 to load desert-raised sheep onto ships, but later served to monitor the wellbeing of lunar explorers.
It’s home to the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum, a cornucopia of NASA technology that was otherwise destined for the local dump.
“This console?” I ask, reverently pressing a few buttons. “This is the actual console?”
“The actual one,” replies guide Colin Wright. “Yeah, I know, amazing isn’t it? In the Smithsonian, stuff like this is behind temperature-controlled glass.”
Only in Australia can you sit and twiddle with a deck that relayed the heart rates, blood pressures and body temperatures of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Located directly beneath the flight paths of the Gemini and Apollo missions, Carnarvon was an essential tracking station from 1963 right through to 1986.
After another solace-filled, 200-mile drive, I arrive at Shark Bay. In 2007, this wilderness of dunes and salty waters was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status for safeguarding at least three natural treasures, including its population of around 10,000 dugongs.
The rarest of these treasures are the strange ‘living fossils’ called stromatolites, which I encounter at Hamelin Pools. They resemble giant rubber mushrooms submerged in the shallows, but are actually apartment blocks of bacteria. They spend their days releasing small bubbles of oxygen, exactly as they have done for 7,000 years — and exactly as stromatolites have done since they carpeted our watery planet 3.5 billion years ago, sweetly oxygenating it and opening the door to the evolution of complex plants and animals. And us.
Shark Bay’s most famous natural treasure is a small pod of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which visit the RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort. Each morning at around 7:30am, a dozen or so animals arrive in the shallows. Guests line up, ankle-deep along the shore while rangers wade out to greet the dolphins. They swirl around the rangers, clicking, twisting and playing, knowing there’s a free feed of pilchards to be had.
This joyful spectacle has been occurring for decades, thrilling the guests who make it to this far-flung resort. However, government authorities have been careful to both limit the interaction (it used to be a free-for-all) and expand the wildlife options. One of these is Perfect Nature Cruises’ very fine Marine Life Tour — a half-day cruise on board Aristocat 2 to meet the dugongs.
I drive a further 250 miles before stopping at Kalbarri National Park to explore the rim of ancient canyons. The world is upside down here; I’m high above sea level, yet standing on sea bed. Underfoot, I can see exactly how it rippled 420 million years ago; the rock even bears a few skittering tracks left by extinct ‘sea scorpions’.
The landscape is harsh, the sun is fearsome and I’m happy to take refuge in Kalbarri — a good-natured town offering deep-sea fishing adventures. Alas, my day is blown out by a warm onshore wind, so I forgo the adrenalin thrills of hauling in 50kg cobia to explore the foreshore.
It proves fortuitous as I discover Wittecarra Creek, marked by a sign as the first permanent European landing on the Australian mainland. In 1629, two young Dutch sailors, Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom, were marooned here as punishment for their association with the bloody Batavia mutiny. Stories of stranded Dutch sailors have been handed down through generations of Aboriginal people, including Kalbarri’s Nanda tribe who took mariners into their number. DNA testing has shown conclusively that Dutch people settled here long before the British.
Another day, another 200 miles south — and when the wild frontiers begin surrendering to agriculture, I’m shocked. The sight of golden wheat plains and stock animals taking shade beneath gum trees looks incredibly surreal, alien almost.
Not that the Coral Coast has been cowed by civilisation, or for that matter, surrendered to ‘normal’.
Near the fishing town of Port Gregory I encounter a lake surrounded by pale dunes so tall they look like snow-blown mountains. To add to the incongruity, the lake is pink — and not just a little bit pink, but lurid bubble-gum pink, the product of salt-loving cyanobacteria.
Not far from the pink lake is a farm surrounded by sunburned paddocks. At first glance it resembles any of Australia’s isolated homesteads. However, when I pass through the gates I’m greeted by a huge sculpted head — and I have to buy a $4 (£2.25) visa.
I’ve officially left the Commonwealth of Australia and entered the Principality of Hutt River, where I’m greeted by Prince Leonard, now 92. Prince Leonard was wheat farmer Leonard Casley until he seceded in 1970 after clashing with the Government of WA over wheat quotas.
He shows me round his museum of gifts from obscure royal families and governments. A letter dated 2016 is especially prized, serving his case that Hutt River is a sovereign independent state. “This letter is recognition from Buckingham Palace,” says the Prince. “It clearly states the Queen’s good wishes for the 46th anniversary of Hutt River.”
As all good journeys should, my trip ends with a sunset. And fittingly, it’s unlike any I’ve ever seen. Many Australian national parks close their gates before sundown but Nambung, near the town of Cervantes, is different. It’s home to the Pinnacles Desert, famous for tall columns of yellow sandstone that seem to sprout from the sands.
I arrive in time for the elaborate play of honeyed light and long shadows, anticipating hordes of people snapping a collection of perhaps two dozen columns. Only I’m wrong. There are only two other visitors. And there are thousands and thousands of stone pinnacles sprouting from nearly 500 acres of rolling desert.
It’s a dreamscape, and the whole time I’m in it I murmur aloud at the weirdness, how the sprawling vista shifts with suggestions — it’s a crowd, then a forest, now a cemetery.
Nambung is also home to beaches. By now I’m no longer surprised to find that they’re broad, beautiful and mostly deserted. But I do rather appreciate that it’s called Hangover Bay — a fitting place, I think, to take a cold beer and toast a 1,250-mile journey that delivered the sublime and the strange in almost equal measure.
It’s likely your Coral Coast odyssey includes Perth, so don’t miss all it has to offer
Perth is one of the most dynamic urban reinventions in Australia. The river has been brought closer into the CBD with Elizabeth Quay, a railway line has gone underground and the inner city population has gone from 1,000 to 35,000. Learn more on a tour with Two Feet and A Heartbeat.
Elizabeth Quay is a huge riverside playground; Brookfield Place sees 19th-century financial houses converted into urbane restaurants; and Fremantle is home to colonial architecture and a thriving craft beer scene.
Raising the bar
As part of its makeover, Perth introduced a new small bar licence, attracting rum joints and cocktail basements. Try Mechanics Institute (William Street), Angel’s Cut (Brookfield Place) and various spots in Northbridge.
Art of the matter
The pre-19th-century Australian canvases in the old Police Courts are spectacular, but the contemporary exhibits in the new wing offer edgy alternatives, such as the recent Heath Ledger, A Life in Pictures. The nearby WA museum (opening in 2020) promises to be a world beater.
Fly direct to Perth from London with Qantas; the 17-hour flight costs from £778 return. Connect to Learmonth (Exmouth) with Qantas for £35 + taxes with the Explorer Pass.
A 4WD with Avis costs around $55 (£31) per day. Request a drop-off in Perth. The described journey clocked up 1,250 miles and consumed $300 (£170) in petrol.
When to go
The weather is good between March and October, which is when whale sharks and whales can be seen off Ningaloo Reef.
Need to know
Currency: £1 = $1.75
International dialling code: +61
Time difference: GMT+8
Published in the Western Australia guide, free with the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)